03/25/2013 01:13 pm ET Updated May 25, 2013

The Problem with Ocalan's Peace

This week, jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan made a historic call for the PKK to lay down their arms and withdraw from Turkey. Politicians and scholars alike have greeted the unprecedented appeal as a critical and positive first step in ending the armed struggle that has plagued and defined Turkey's domestic and foreign policy for the last three decades. Most can agree that the announcement is not a definitive solution and instead a comprehensive constitutional change in Kurdish rights is still needed in order to address the underlying cause of the greater Kurdish movement. What the immediate ceasefire allows, however, is a window of opportunity for political maneuver. Erdogan and the AKP can only make progress towards solving the Kurdish issue politically and constitutionally under the political cover provided by the immediate peace deal. In this framework, Ocalan's call for the PKK to halt its attacks and withdraw from Turkish territory is extremely important. Similarly, the implications of the terms of his statement cannot be overlooked.

The first point of Ocalan's appeal, a ceasefire, is rather straightforward. The PKK will cease attacks against Turkish military and civilian targets. In fact, this step involves no action on behalf of the PKK or the Turkish military, rather inaction. This is an important distinction to be made. The PKK is not being asked to sacrifice anything tangible like weapons capabilities, personnel, or any physical asset, only to temporarily cease operations. The second point of the call, the withdrawal, is a much more complicated issue at several levels. Here, it is important to define withdrawal in its military context. Politicians would be wise not to use the term without understanding its specific implication. NATO defines a withdrawal as a planned retrograde operation in which a force in contact disengages from an enemy force and moves in a direction away from the enemy. Note that this is fundamentally different from a defeat, surrender, or an end to a conflict. A PKK withdrawal is an operational maneuver, not a strategic outcome. The term itself carries no connotation of success or failure. In fact, a withdrawal simply sacrifices space for time. In a nonlinear conflict like the one the PKK and Turkish military are engaged in, the concept of space is not of significant tactical importance, especially when the PKK's logistical and leadership base in northern Iraq is not being threatened.

Furthermore, from a military standpoint, a PKK withdrawal raises serious questions regarding exactly how to carry out such an operation. Nowhere has it been articulated just how the Turkish government or the PKK will measure the withdrawal. At what point can the PKK be considered to be withdrawn? Is it when every single armed Kurd leaves the country? This would be an extremely ambitious goal given the fact that the PKK is a popular insurgency, not a conventional military unit. Perhaps this argument is a straw man, but even a withdrawal of a fraction of the PKK is nearly impossible to determine. After all, at what point does a PKK member become a Kurdish civilian? When they disarm? Ocalan has yet to call on Kurds to disarm. Even if he did, how would Turkey enforce such a monumental task? Who would oversee it? The Turkish military? If Ankara intends to see every AK-47 collected from Turkey's Southeast, then I wish them luck. These tactical and operational-level definitions may seem trivial, as the strategic-level debate over greater Kurdish rights is the key issue of the matter. However, the parties involved must realize that definitions of operational terms have serious implications. True, a ceasefire and a withdrawal will not solve Turkey's Kurdish problem, but they are a necessary first step, and a first step that needs to be defined and understood.

For these reasons, it is likely that the PKK will not withdraw and will not disarm, at least in the sense that Turks would hope from a comprehensive peace agreement. In fact, on Friday, Murat Karayilan, the leader of the PKK in northern Iraq in Ocalan's stead, ordered the PKK to halt their attacks but made no mention of a withdrawal. Why would he? The Turkish government has no coercive capacity with which to enforce the terms of their own peace deal without spoiling it themselves. As the peace deal currently stands, the PKK reserves its position of strength in these negotiations. If the Turkish government fails to enact substantial democratic and cultural reforms, the PKK reserves it ability to restart the conflict, having tactically sacrificed nothing in the process. Observers must not confuse a ceasefire or a withdrawal with a neutralized PKK threat. The organization will remain a deadly force, perched on Turkey's border with an undiminished capacity to reignite the insurgency if the evolving political struggle fails.